Flag causes flap at Stone Mountain

Telling our story. Georgia and the rest of the South are grappling with how to display Confederate relics and memorials in wake of a racially inspired shooting rampage in a Charleston, S.C. church that left nine African-American worshippers dead. The suspected shooter photographed himself with the Confederate battle flag and told police he intended to start a race war. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has traveled to South Carolina and Mississippi and will continue to canvas the South to tell this important story.

They were in a hurry to hoof to the top of Stone Mountain, but Antonio Neal and Shineka Breitling paused for a moment. Fifty yards away, four flags of the Confederacy waved at them.

“I was about to have my girlfriend take a picture of me in front of the flags yesterday,” said Neal, who power walks the granite peak almost daily. “Then I saw those flags and said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

Neal, 30 and African-American, is the sort of park visitor state Rep. LaDawn Jones wants to enlist in a Fourth of July boycott of Stone Mountain Park. The south Fulton lawmaker, a Democrat and African-American, earlier this week asked Independence Day celebrants to take their parties anywhere but the state-owned park. The DeKalb park's Flag Terrace, which hikers pass on their way to the summit and back, features multiple versions of Confederate banners, including the battle flag.

Jones could hardly have chosen a place where the past so thoroughly collides with the present, where two different viewpoints hang from the same flagpole. The park, a reminder of the Civil War South, is in the middle of a county that is predominately African-American. Nearby Stone Mountain Village, once a white enclave, is heavily African-American, too.

On any given day, at least half the people jogging or strolling in the 3,200-acre park are African-American. Their steps take them past the Confederate flags, beyond the stony gaze of three Confederate leaders forever enshrined on the mountain’s face.

At the same time, history buffs make a trek to the big rock east of Atlanta to gaze at what Stone Mountain Park calls “the largest high-relief sculpture in the world.”

For Neal, who lives in Marietta, a boycott makes sense. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it ought to come down.”

While the Confederacy had several flags, none has come to symbolize the secessionist nation more than the battle flag. That banner — revered and reviled, extolled and excoriated — is facing unprecedented criticism following the June 17 shooting deaths of nine innocents at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The alleged gunman, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof, told police he hoped the killings would trigger a race war. Investigators discovered photos featuring the suspect posing with the Confederate battle flag.

Those images touched off responses that were as swift as they were stunning. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the banner to come down from its prominent spot near the Statehouse in Columbia. In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the banner removed from the Capitol. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he’d seek a redesign of vanity car plates featuring the battle flag. Some online retailers abruptly dropped the flag from their inventories.

Still, said Jones, that flag remains on state property at Stone Mountain Park — one of many reminders of the South’s participation in that 1861-65 war. The main road in the park is named after Gen. Robert E. Lee. The great lawn, stretching from Memorial Hall to the mountain’s base, is ringed by monuments detailing the role of each Confederate state in the war.

There is the mountain itself, too. Carved on its north face are soaring, bas relief figures of Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. With them is Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. They are 190 feet tall.

When she was an Atlanta schoolgirl visiting the park, Jones said, the big rock reminded her of hard, frightening times. The Ku Klux Klan used to rally there.

“I hope that the word (of a boycott) gets out,” said Jones. “There are plenty of other things for people to do on the Fourth of July than to go to Stone Mountain.”

Officials at Stone Mountain recently issued a statement. It reads, in part:

“Stone Mountain is preserved by state law as a Confederate memorial. … Some on both sides of these issues have said that these Confederate symbols belong in a museum. Here in Georgia, Stone Mountain Park serves that purpose.”

Symbols stir emotions, said Tanya Marie Luhrmann, an author and anthropology professor at Stanford University. Her specialties include the role of religion in our lives and peoples' sense of place.

A flag, Luhrmann said, reminds us of place. If the flag is a Confederate banner, it likely invites mixed emotions, too.

“One group may see it as a reminder of the ‘glorious South,’” Luhrmann said. “Another group sees it as something else.”

Asma Elhuni sees the flag as a “symbol of hate.” A Lilburn resident of Libyan descent, she was at the park earlier this week. Elhuni sneered at the red-and-blue flag as she walked toward her car.

“For me to come up here and see this?” she asked. “I’m very disappointed that they wouldn’t take it down.”

The flag should remain, said Shirley Davis Horner. When she heard about Jones’ call for a boycott, the Canton resident rolled her eyes.

“Why erase history?” asked Horner, who is white. “How will our grandchildren learn if we erase history?”

It's history that belongs in a museum, said Mary Hoyt of Clarkston. She sat in a folding chair at the foot of the walkway to the mountain's pinnacle, a bottle of cold water at her side and a sign in her hands. Put the flags behind glass! it read.

“Everytime I walk past that flag, it makes me nauseous,”said Hoyt, who is white.

The flag is a symbol of Southern heritage, said Howard Lindsley, also visiting the park.

“As long as it’s about pride and heritage, I’m all for it,” said Lindsley, a native New Yorker now living in Murrells Inlet, S.C. “I don’t think it’s necessary to take it down.”

Letting the flag fly underscores that mountain’s role in a vicious period of U.S. history, said Nataki Salahuddin. The Covington resident walked past the banner on her way down the mountainside.

Walking up the mountain, Salahuddin said, she thought about men in white, burning crosses on the peak. Then she thought about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who mentioned that same mountaintop in his “I have a dream” speech. “It’s ironic, really,” she said.

“Flying that flag?” she said. “It definitely causes an uproar.”

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